It is entirely possible that in this great epoch of free and freely available information, we know less about ourselves, our culture, and the history of human civilisation than ever before. And at a time when different cultures are clashing in our world with renewed vitriol, one would think that such knowledge might come in handy. Instead, the Age of Information is in many ways an age of ignorance.
Former American Idol contestant Kellie Pickler was recently (and inadvertently) anointed poster girl for the culturally challenged when asked on a game show to name the country of which Budapest is capital. Her puzzlement, which included speculation that Europe might itself be a country, was widely ridiculed; at the time of writing, no fewer than five million YouTubers had chuckled at her lack of basic general knowledge.
This is not a cold, removed account of a distant time and place. Rather, this is a stimulating introduction to a fascinating, long-lost ancestor.
The truth is, not a few of the millions of viewers of Pickler’s game show gaffe would have been stumped by the same question, and many would have been privately surprised and embarrassed to realise that such basic geography was in fact beyond them. Unfortunately there appears to be a growing mass of knowledge which many of us would like to know, but which we have not taken the time or effort to learn.
In literary terms, Mark Twain famously quipped, “a classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” Perhaps we are experiencing a similar dilemma, only this time in the far more basic world of general knowledge.
But what is a poor ignorant soul to do? Few of us have time for weighty histories crammed with indecipherable names and unmemorable dates. Fast-paced lives beget fast-paced minds, and the last thing we need is to jam the system with unnecessary detail. What’s more, filling the cultural gaps should not be hard work; the demands of work and family life leave only limited energy for such luxurious pursuits.
Enter Philip Matyszak, with a novel approach to filling the cultural void. Matyszak’s book, Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day, is a charming snap-shot of Roman society in the year AD 200, written in a style sure to appeal to the modern reader: the Lonely Planet-style travel guide.
The book is divided into ten chapters, each intended to be of practical use to someone wishing to travel to the great city of Rome as it was some 1800 years ago. So we have chapters offering excellent advice on topics such as getting there, settling in, law and order, entertainment, and religion, among others.
Each chapter is supplemented by an array of side notes, illustrations and hints and tips for the ancient backpacker. Maps, diagrams, and tables of measurements all help to tangibly recreate the ancient world for the modern reader. Quotes from famous Roman philosophers, historians and politicians pepper the pages, lending touches of humanity to broader descriptive passages. Throughout the book Res Romani (Roman things) – pithy, fascinating facts and quirky pieces of Roman trivia – are presented in boxes shaped like Roman porticoes.
Additionally, the book contains a subject index, several full-colour computer illustrations of various Roman buildings as they might have appeared, and an amusing glossary of useful Latin phrases (including phrases for dating, and for use at a bar). All of this is presented in an attractive format: the paper is thick and the text clear (although slightly small); and the volume is hardbound, with an attractive dustcover.
Although it is unlikely that scholars of the Roman Empire will learn a great deal from Matyszak’s work, the author is a most capable guide for the reader who commands only a patchy knowledge of ancient Roman culture. Bearing a PhD from St John’s College, Oxford, Matyszak writes with a fluency which belies the rich detail and acute observations which fill the book. Thankfully our author is also endowed with a wry sense of humour, which is evident throughout the volume (although it should be noted that at times he drifts towards the puerile in this regard).
One should also note that this book is not intended for children or early teenagers: at least the inclusion of a frank and bawdy discussion of the ancient Romans’ endorsement of prostitution indicates as much.
Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day is excellent day-in-the-life fare, immersing the reader in the social customs, political goings-on, and general hustle and bustle of one of the greatest civilisations mankind has known. More than this, the author demonstrates a keen sense of the enduring influence of ancient Roman culture on the world today, and especially on the West. A Roman money-changer, Matyszak observes, conducted his business over a large table, called a banca, after which our modern banks are named.
By placing the reader in the midst of history, and by inviting the reader to engage with ancient Rome as if he or she were about to travel there, the author goes some way to removing a significant barrier to the awakening of the historical sensibilities of modern man. This is not a cold, removed account of a distant time and place. Rather, this is a stimulating introduction to a fascinating, long-lost ancestor.
Admittedly, it is only an introduction. But at a time when interest in our cultural roots is flagging, it might be that gentle introductions to culture are what the inhabitants of the Information Age most need. As for myself, I am convinced of the merits of this book on the basis that, if there were more like it, exploring other cultures in other times and in a similar manner, I would not hesitate to read them.
Tim Cannon studies law and plays in the Melbourne band Kingbayler